“Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened” – Thomas Hardy
In the ongoing quest to understand the diverse nature of pilgrimage, I travelled with my devout Catholic friend Miriam to the monastery of St Anthony – Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya – perched high up on the rocky slopes of the Qadisha valley also known as the Holy Valley, in the Northern Governate of Lebanon. The Maronite community here is modest in number, but the monastery attracts many local visitors and pilgrims.
During our stay we encountered one such pilgrim who had returned to give thanks for a prayer answered. Probably aged around 75-80, and improbably adorned with a silver sequinned baseball cap and silver shoes, ‘Maria’ told us how she had first made a pilgrimage to the monastery to pray for her son and his wife who, after many years of marriage, had produced no children. The pilgrimage had proved effective and the couple had recently borne a baby boy. “If you pray” she told us, “and you believe that your prayer will be answered, your prayer will be answered.” For Maria, the arrival of her new grand-son was living proof of this. Encouraged by this success, Maria had returned to pray for help with the infirmities of old age, having no daughters to take care of her. Again she had been rewarded. “Before, now” she said ” I was bent over like this, and could barely walk. Whereas now, see how I stand upright and strong.” Her story, (translated by Natalie the caretaker of the Monastery’s hostel) was told with great fervour and lit by the fire of true belief in the miracles wrought.
Miraculous cures have long been a motive for pilgrimage, not least in ancient Greece, where the quest for a cure was a central driver of pilgrimage activity to ritual sites. At the heart of this was Asklepios, the god of healing and son of Apollo. Both shared the epithet, ‘paean’ (the healer), a reference to a healing deity which can be traced back to the much earlier Mycenaean culture and which is referenced in Homer’s Iliad.
Sanctuaries known as asklepieia, dedicated to Asklepios, could be found in many towns and cities and the most important of these was at Epidavros, on the Greek mainland. Founded sometime in the 6th century BCE, the asklepieion at Epidavrus remained in use as a healing centre into the 5th century CE. Here pilgrims came to be cured of anything from infertility to worms and would make votive offerings of terracotta body parts, indicating the location of their malaise.
The rituals of the cure involved both induced dreams and the use of non-venomous snakes. These roamed freely in the abaton or dormitory building at Epidavros, providing the opportunity for a snake to bite a pilgrim on the affected part while he or she slept.
As medicine developed, the number of asklepieia increased and around a century after the creation of the sanctuary at Epidavros, one such site was founded on the island of Kos in the southern Aegean. Although there is no evidence that medicine was practiced at the asklepieion itself, Kos was to become notable for its association with the physician Hippocrates, whose name lives on through the eponymous oath, historically taken by physicians entering the profession. Asklepios had five daughters, of which two are worthy of note in this respect; namely Hygenieia, goddess of health and cleanliness, and Panacea, goddess of universal remedy. Along with Apollo, these pagan deities were mentioned in the opening passage of the Hippocratic oath, being dropped in the later Christianised version. “I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asklepios, by Hygenieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgement, this oath and this indenture.”
The healing cult of Asklepios endured for almost a millennium, and the ‘Rod of Asklepios’, symbol, depicting a snake wound around a rod or staff, remains in use today, featuring at the centre of the World Health Organisation (WHO) logo. The miracle of healing which drew pilgrims to Epidavrus, Kos, and elsewhere gives us a clue to one of the factors which still drives pilgrimage today: namely the hope of securing a much desired cure.